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Posts Tagged ‘Elif Shafak’

Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

On further reflection I must include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.

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Let those who hear our voices be aware
That night now reigns on earth. Nocturnal listeners,
The time you hear me in is one of darkness,
And round us, as within us, battle rages.

(David Gascoyne, from Night Thoughts in Collected Poems, page 135)

David Gascoyne

Till now, I probably hadn’t read my way through Gascoyne’s work in its entirety since 1982 when I purchased Robin Skelton’s edition of his collected poems, sometime before I found my way to the Bahá’í Faith.

For the first time in heaven knows how many years I’m listening to Beethoven as I work at my laptop on this post – his Pathétique, First Movement.

And why is that?

What is the reason for these changes? Perhaps even more importantly why do they seem so important to me? I’ll take the first of those questions right away, leaving the second for the next post.

Regular readers of this blog will find some repetition of earlier posts here, but I need to repeat the main ideas briefly in order to make sense of what has happened.

Basically, the reading of The Forty Rules of Love. It is the equivalent of my Dancing Flames dream in its impact.

Dancing Flames Dream

Let’s take the dream first, which I had in 1980 towards the end of my first degree in psychology, when I was doing a full time job as Deputy Manager of a Day Centre for people with mental health problems as well as studying for the BSc part-time. I’ve blogged about it at some length before so I will cut to the chase here.

The key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

A chain of associations, many of them involving Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter, explained that the golden horn represented the arts, and most especially poetry and song. The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I was working too hard in the wrong way, and had sold out poetry/song for prose, heart for intellect, and intuition for reason and most of all the dream was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car, a symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Further reflection led me to feel that the spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of work and relationships to become inauthentic and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. Art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

In a way poetry at that time was my substitute for religion. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

When I found a religion, which gave me a sense that seemed to offer some hope of walking the spiritual path with practical feet, thereby balancing intuition and reason, efficiency and love, I ceased to monitor carefully the way I was treading the path. To extend the metaphor by imagining that my heart was my left foot and my head the right, each governed by the opposite side of the brain, I lost sight of whether I was using both feet. I didn’t notice that I had begun to limp. My left foot was growing weaker.

A rag rug

The Dream of the Hearth

My dream of the hearth, which I have also explored at length on this blog, helped me redress this imbalance.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

The emphasis which it placed on the idea of the heart and the earth being connected, and as a place where the peat of spirit could be burned safely to warm the body’s home and energise me for constructive action, was critical. Even so I still found it hard not to let my left brain leanings tilt me out of kilter.

The Forty Rules of Love

And here I am again with another reminder, which I have recently described, and which I see as yet again telling me I must give more attention to my heart.

During a conversation high above the plains of India, in Panghgani, as I recently described, one of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book. And it

It resonated strongly with me as I read it on the plane home.

The book was clearly a labour of love, and the ‘rules,’ even though not to be found in that form in the words of Shams of Tabriz or Rumi, feel authentic in the sense that their original roots are in the ground of Rumi’s writing even if they have now been transplanted into a modern soil. And to be honest the rules don’t really read as rules most of the time: they are more like attempts to pin down some eternal truths about spiritual reality which we can use to guide our conduct if we wish.

A story with a different version in the book can be found in Wikipedia:

One day Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books. Shams Tabriz, passing by, asked him, “What are you doing?” Rumi scoffingly replied, “Something you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned.) On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, “What is this?” To which Shams replied, “Mowlana, this is what you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned.)

This again at least to some extent relates to the right (heart) and left (head) brain issue. Even more importantly though is the fact that the book illustrates powerfully the impact on Rumi of this encounter. It is confirmed by all the stories that have come down through time. It catapulted Rumi from scholar to poet.

I have finally twigged one of the main causes of the strong impact on me of this book, which initially puzzled me more than  a little. It wasn’t just to do with its spirituality. Reading it has forcefully catapulted me back to the consideration of poetry, and a particular kind of poetry at that.

More of that and David Gascoyne next time.

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